As someone who used to give up chocolate or ice cream for Lent, only to spend 40 days obsessing over sweets, I have tried in recent years to take on something that will improve my understanding, spark better behavior on my part, and be worth a little obsession. This year I’ve stumbled onto an amazing book.
I have been reading and thinking about Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark (HarperOne, 2015). She describes herself as a “spiritual contrarian.” I like that. She is an Episcopal priest, who embraces the natural world and whose vision of holiness encompasses more than church pews, public relations, and politics. She’s written many books, including An Altar in the World, and has a gift for living a deeply spiritual, well-grounded life. I was drawn to her book on darkness, because that’s often how the world looks to me in these days of pandemic, economic strife, and guerilla politics. Darkness is also what I encounter several times a week, when I open my eyes at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m., unable to sleep and unwilling to get out of bed.
Taylor’s proposition is that darkness is not a bad thing, not a state that should rattle or terrify us, but one that brings insights of its own, if only we are open to perceiving them.
She writes about living in the country where true darkness visits every night -- as opposed to the city where streetlights assure that we can always see what is happening on our streets, if not the actual stars. She writes about human beings’ essential need for darkness and our seemingly innate dread of it. She writes about people who could see and now cannot, struck by blindness and then by the power of what she calls “dark angels . . . the best, most demanding spiritual teachers we may ever know.”
She mentions my favorite story from the Hebrew Bible. Genesis describes Jacob, who had cheated his older brother, Esau, of his birthright. The story is a Sunday School staple. Isaac, the son of Abraham, had twin sons. The older of the two was Esau, the younger was Jacob. When their aging father was ready to bless his oldest son, Esau, Jacob and his mother plotted to fool the blind Isaac. Jacob put on Esau's clothes and wrapped his neck and arms with a hairy goat's hide. When the blind father grasped Jacob's hands, he mistook him for Esau. Once the trick was revealed, Isaac couldn’t take back his blessing. Instead, he sent Jacob away to a neighboring land to find a wife (perhaps to remove him, too, from the wrath of his older brother).
Jacob lived apart from his family for more than 14 years but decided eventually to take his two wives and children and return home, despite the fact that he was wary of seeing Esau again. On the way back, Jacob’s family camped on one side of the river Jabbok, and he went to rest on the other, perhaps to avoid the noise of his two feuding wives, their maids and his 11 children (another story altogether). In the darkness, Jacob awoke because a man was attacking him. The two wrestled through the night. At one point, the stranger struck Jacob, knocking his hip out of joint. The fighting continued until daybreak.
“Let me go for the day is breaking,” the stranger said.
“I will not let you go unless you bless me,” Jacob responded.
“What is your name,” the stranger asked. Jacob gave his name, and the stranger replied, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”
When Jacob demanded to know his attacker’s name, the stranger blessed him and disappeared. Jacob stumbled back to his family with a limp that would last his lifetime.
Since I was a child, this story has fascinated me -- that it happened in the dark, that Jacob didn’t know with whom he wrestled (some English translations render the attacker an “angel,” but the Hebrew word means only “messenger”), that the wrestling would mark Jacob for the rest of his days, but he would emerge with a new name, one that reflected his struggle.
“Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel all night long if there were any chance of escape,” Taylor asks. “The only answer I can think of is this: someone in deep need of blessing; someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound.”
(It strikes me as slightly ironic that Jacob/Israel becomes a patriarch of the Hebrew people, a man whose ten sons included Joseph, the dreamer. But I digress.)
Taylor writes about dining in the dark, spending time in a cave that no light or outside sound can penetrate. She draws from science, biology, sociology, philosophy, poetry, and even an all-too-familiar Christian theology that invariably connects evil to darkness and faith to light. But she’s also read and wrestled with the church’s mothers and fathers, and draws them into the discussion from time to time. And, fitting for a Lenten read, she connects darkness to Easter.
“Resurrection is always announced with Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets, bright streaming light. But it did not happen that way,” she writes. “If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. . . . new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
Now, I don’t really know whether the nighttime wrestling I have done has been with my subconscious or the worries that spill out of my overstuffed heart. In other words, I am not sure that I’ve wrestled with God very often, or ever. But If I had, that would redeem some of the wrestling, I suppose. It’s also true that I haven’t always welcomed the darkness (real or spiritual) and that I have often dreaded wrestling altogether. But this story of Jacob gives me hope. It may be that I will emerge from this present darkness with a limp, but also with a new name, a better way of living, even in the dark.
*Isaiah 45:3 "I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name."